Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia that is famous for its monolithic rock–cut churches. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities, second only to Aksum, and is a center of pilgrimage for much of the country. Unlike Aksum, the population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. The layout and names of the major buildings in Lalibela are widely accepted, especially by the local clergy, to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem.This has led some experts to date the current form of its churches to the years following the capture of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Muslim soldier Saladin.
Lalibela is located in the Semien Wollo Zone of the Amhara ethnic division (or kilil) at roughly 2,500 meters above sea level. It is the main town in Lasta woreda, which was formerly part of Bugna woreda.
This rural town is known around the world for its churches carved from the living rock, which play an important part in the history of rock-cut architecture. Though the dating of the churches is not well established, most are thought to have been built during the reign of Lalibela, namely during the 12th and 13th centuries. Unesco identifies 11 churches,assembled in four groups:
The Northern Group:
- Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, probably a copy of St Mary of Zion in Aksum.
- Biete Maryam (House of Miriam/House of Mary), possibly the oldest of the churches, and a replicas of the Tombs of Adam and Christ.
- Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael), known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela)
- Biete Maskal (House of the Cross)
- Biete Denagel (House of Virgins)
The Western Group:
- Biete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George), said to be the most finely executed and best preserved church.
The Eastern Group:
- Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), possibly the former royal chapel
- Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos/House of St. Mark), which may be a former prison
- Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos)
- Biete Gabriel-Rufael (House of the angels Gabriel, and Raphael) possibly a former royal palace, linked to a holy bakery.
- Biete Lehem (Bethlehem Hebrew: בֵּיתלֶחֶם, House of Holy Bread).
Farther afield lie the monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos church (possibly eleventh century, built in the Aksumite fashion but within a cave).